Location is everything. And the proximity of this 15-mile-long Cascades loop to Seattle (less than an hour east of Sea-Tac airport) affords you two rare luxuries. First, forget the frazzled Friday post-work getaway; the drive is so short you can leave on Saturday morning. Second, the route makes finding alpine solitude an hour from 3.2 million people astonishingly easy. That's not to say there's no work involved, but it's a labor of love: You'll gain nearly 8,000 feet in elevation on this mountainous circuit that rises from moss- and fern-lined trails through larger-than-life pines to hidden glacial tarns. It's the idllyc type of setting you normally find only at the end of a multi-day trek. Trails start thawing in late May and early June, making now the perfect time to block out dates on your calendar.
Park at the Granite Mountain Trailhead and start hiking on the Pratt Lake Trail. The path switchbacks 4.3 miles through dense spruce to the 4,000-foot saddle between Olallie and Pratt Lakes. Take a breather in a boulder field nestled between clear crystal lakes and dark granite peaks. And check the southern view; on clear days, you can see Mt. Rainier. Then continue up another 1.2 miles to a handful of designated campsites at the north end of Pratt. Camp here or, even better, continue another 1.2 miles to the linkup with the Melakwa Trail. Melakwa is cut into a steep, thickly forested slope that plunges 1,000 feet to the headwaters of the Pratt River, and it leads to Lower Tuscohatchie Lake, where two lesser-used sites nestle in the pines on the west bank. The sunset here is stunning, with golden rays playing off Low Mountain and the incisor-shaped Tooth. Don't get so mellow that you forget to hang your food; Washington has the highest density of black bears of any state in the Lower 48.
Pack a summit pack after a lakeside breakfast and head out on a quick four-mile climb to Kaleetan Lake, just below spiky 6,259-foot Kaleetan Peak. A series of slick creek crossings and a pick-up-sticks array of fallen trees left over from 2007's epic windstorms make parts of the hike slow going. However, the solitude and view of Kaleetan (meaning "arrow" in native Chinook) framed in its eponymous lake are well worth the effort. Snack on the banks or take an ice-cold dip, then descend back to your tent site. Break camp and continue on the Melakwa Trail 2.9 miles to Melakwa Lake. Pitch camp here to make it a three-day weekend, or continue hiking (see below) to get home Sunday evening.
Go ahead and sleep in. There's often dense fog that doesn't clear from Melakwa Lake until 9 a.m., a rare opportunity to eat oats and sip hot coffee inside a cloud. To finish the loop, follow Denny Creek Trail, which drops through scree and alpine meadows. You'll pass Snowshoe and then Keekwulee Falls, two 100-foot falls that horsetail over granite ledges, reminding you why this area is called the Cascades. From the Denny Creek campground, 4.4 miles down the trail, complete the loop by walking another three miles southwest on Forest Service Road 58 to Granite Mountain Trailhead–and your easy drive back to the city.
Green Trails #206 Bandera and #207 Snoqualmie Pass ($5.50, greentrailsmaps.com)
Required ($5/day) and available at the North Bend Ranger Station (425-888-1421) or the REI mothership in Seattle (206-223-1944)
A BLAT sandwich (Bacon, Lettuce, Avocado and Tomato) and locally brewed pint at The Pub at Third Place in Ravenna (3rdplacepub.com)
From Seattle, take I-90 east 46 miles to exit 47. Make two lefts, and drive a quarter mile to the Granite Mountain Trailhead.